MORRIS: No need to pay college athletes

Pell Grant money helps fill in the blanks for players

January 25, 2014 

COLLEGE athletes should not be paid. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.

Besides, they already are paid. Those fortunate enough to receive full scholarships have their tuition, room and board, and books paid for. Depending on the school, those costs alone could climb as high as $50,000 annually. Additionally, they receive the finest coaching in their respective sports and the best athletics training available in top-notch facilities, all free of charge.

There also is this little secret that many head coaches choose to ignore when they talk about how college athletes live in virtual poverty while they compete: Those athletes who qualify on a need basis receive a federal supplement every semester.

It is called Pell Grant money. Qualified athletes receive up to $5,645 per year, money that is deposited in their bank account by the federal government. The money can be spent any way an athlete chooses. Some send a bulk of the money home for family needs. Others use it to make monthly car payments. Still others use it for spending money.

The money helps athletes from impoverished backgrounds live the life of an average student without hardship.

Dawn Staley, the South Carolina women’s basketball coach, grew up in the Philadelphia projects and earned a full scholarship to Virginia. Staley also qualified for the maximum amount of Pell Grant money, which was $850 per semester when she arrived at Virginia in 1988.

“The first two years at Virginia, I don’t know what was wrong with me,” Staley said in an interview a year ago. “I never got the Pell Grants. I think I was really prideful, really prideful. I didn’t realize what the Pell Grant was, didn’t know about it until I was exposed to my teammates who were getting it.”

Staley applied and received the maximum grant for her junior and senior years.

“Clothes, food, entertainment,” Staley said of her grant money use. “We stretched it out. ... Things came up. I didn’t have much when I went to school. When you see other people with things, you’re a kid, you want them. If you don’t have them, you don’t feel like you’re having the full experience of being in college.”

Staley’s example of two decades ago applies today. The neediest athletes are taken care of through Pell Grants and do not need the extra “stipend” that many coaches have proposed.

Pell Grants are distributed based on the annual income of an athlete’s family. The lower the income, the higher the grant. USC athletes collected $202,261 in Pell Grant money during the 2009-10 school year, $193,450 in 2010-11 and $262,069 in 2011-12.

At Clemson, the average Pell Grant given to an athlete was $2,331 in 2009, $2,365 in 2010 and $2,374 in 2011. Football and men’s basketball accounted for 51 percent of the Pell Grant recipients in 2009 at Clemson, 54 percent in 2010 and 53 percent in 2011.

Most fans of college sports do not know that the NCAA allows for additional help to athletes through its Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, which is “intended to provide direct benefits to student-athletes or their families as determined by conference offices.”

The SEC distributed an average of $342,197 to each SEC school through the fund in 2012-13, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to a report on al.com that was based on the conference’s federal tax return.

Some of those benefits include coverage of non-athletics related health expenses not covered by an athlete’s insurance plan (dental or eye glasses, for example), travel expenses for an athlete to attend funerals or family emergencies, and a $200 annual clothing allowance.

Yet it is mostly football coaches in the power conferences who continue to call for payment to athletes. Some claim that only football and men’s basketball athletes should be paid a stipend because those are the sports that generate the bulk of the revenue.

Never mind that such a plan would violate federal Title IX law, which stipulates equal compensation for female and male athletes. Such a stipend also would strip away the last vestige of amateurism from college athletics.

In many cases, colleges have removed the “student” part of student-athlete by admitting persons who have no business being placed in a college setting academically and who are funneled into selected classes where they cannot fail. Removing “amateur” from college athletics would signal downfall of the entire system.

Athletes who receive full scholarships to college are getting an exceptional deal. They are being prepared for a possible professional athletics career without charge and also can earn a college degree that will serve them well if pro sports is not an option.

Through Pell Grants, the needy among athletes also receive spending money, which dispels the myth perpetuated by coaches that their players “can’t afford to take a date out for pizza.”

These same coaches claim they are looking out for the best interest of the athletes in asking for stipends. Coaches should be channeling their energy toward lobbying Congress to make certain Pell Grants never are eliminated from the federal budget.

For as long as Pell Grants are available, stipends for college athletes are not necessary. There really is no need to pay amateur athletes beyond what they already are making.

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